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The Tastelands

Ph. © L'Arcolaio

The Tastelands

Born of the sea and on the sea, built and made great by people who came from over the sea and who were its masters for centuries, Siracusa owes its magnificence and destiny to the geological and climatic conditions of its position, the abundance of sweet waters, the fertility of the hinterland and above all to its harbours, some of the oldest of the Mediterranean. At the height of the city’s power, it had to feed up to half a million inhabitants including a large multiethnic army which sailed and marched - as Julius Caesar said - above all on its stomach. The quaysides where Archimedes and Plato strolled, teemed with soldiers, fishermen and merchants busy around their triremes and ships. The great belly of Siracusa demanded produce of all types and from all origins, and started to create a model of food syncretism made up of vines and olives from the Peloponnese and Crete, onions from Egypt, dates and figs from the Maghreb, pomegranates from Persia, garum from Spain and silphium from Cyrenaica.
Today’s travellers who come without a set goal or time limit, who dare lose themselves in the lanes of Ortigia, just need to close their eyes and alert their senses to capture the echoes of those “abbanniate”, the calls of the ancient merchants of meat or grain, or the farmers shouting surrounded by baskets of fruit and vegetables. They will still hear the chatter of groups of men and women from the most varied social backgrounds, whether aristocrats or common, citizens or immigrants, in the streets of Neapolis or Akradina, measure up with a glance the lambs and cheeses of the shepherds, the sausages and dried meat of the butchers, the wicker baskets of eggs or olives. Now they can hear the shouts of the fishermen at the Fountain of Arethusa and the jetties, the curses of the ships’ crews, the calls of the children on the steps of the Temple of Apollo or Athena, the deafening noise from the arsenal and the bitter smell of sweat on the slaves and sailors mixing with the perfume of bread.
When those travellers open their eyes, they notice with amazement that the smells and sounds that seemed to be imaginary are in fact real, that everything is still here, just a little more familiar and contemporary. For countless years, in Siracusa men and women have left the house at dawn to put a triumph of fruit and vegetables on display, with fragrant breads, shining fish and meat, delicious cut meats and cheeses. Yesterday they wore tunics and peploi, today jeans and t-shirts. Clients walk past benches and shelves, they look, touch, smell and buy the objects of their gastronomic desires. In the place of the wooden cart of Peusippos, we find the van of Riccardo, the fish-stall of Alexis is now Salvatore’s shop, Isidros is called Antonio but still sells sheep's cheeses and pulls them out of a fridge instead of a cane basket, eggs have enigmatic alphanumeric codes on them but are still produced round the corner, there's less noise and perhaps things are tidier and more hygienic, but the perfumes of the bread, spices and freshly-caught fish are almost the same although less intense and more distinct. Walking through the exuberant but orderly Market of Ortigia today, the banniate of the sellers mix with the aseptic chants of tour-guides, the polite laughs of the Japanese, comments in Spanish and discussions in English or Russian.
This is Siracusa in the third millennium, always hospitable, affectionate, polite, a little self-satisfied and always gluttonous…


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